by Rachel Hiser Remmes

Santi Quattro Coronati houses a plethora of frescoes that provide a glimpse into the political, social, and intellectual lives of thirteenth-century Rome during a tumultuous and unstable period. Extant frescoes in the chapel narrate St. Sylvester’s hagiography from the fourth century. Of the surviving scenes, a poignant scene of the Donation of Constantine decorates a portion of one wall. The scene depicts Constantine in supplication to Pope Sylvester, recognizing the papacy’s ultimate supremacy in all political and religious matters. Although historical, the scene would have resonated with its contemporary audiences, as tensions between Emperor Frederick II and Pope Innocent IV were steadily mounting. The intended metaphorical significance of the papacy’s superiority is also likely because the frescoes were commissioned by Cardinal Stefano Conti, a member of Innocent’s papal court and one of the four men left in Rome during the war with Frederick to deal with impending tensions.

Above this chapel in Santi Quattro Coronati are additional frescoes from Conti’s commission – found more recently – in a private, residential tower. Although labeled “profane” by some because they lack saintly figures or theological messages, the frescoes reveal the papacy’s interest in scientific theories and the liberal arts during the thirteenth century; hitherto, the papacy’s interest in worldly, intellectual pursuits has seemed negligible. These frescoes personify the labors of the month, seasons, vices and virtues and presents them in a manner that invites critical thinking and engagement. They unveil the papacy’s interest in contemporary, evolving scholarship and theories and not just with their political struggles. Moreover, the spatial relationship between the two frescoed rooms – albeit each would have hosted a different audience – has further implications about the papacy’s awareness of the correlation between knowledge and temporal power.

Further Reading: 

Hauknes, Marius B. “The Painting of Knowledge in Thirteenth-Century Rome” Gesta 55.1 (Spring 2016): 19-47.

Donation of Constantine, Chapel, Santi Quattro Coronati, fresco, 1244-54. 

Cropped View, Chapel, Santi Quattro Coronati, fresco, 1244-54.

April, Labors of the Month, Cardinal’s Residence, Santi Quattro Coronati, fresco, 1244-54.

Vice and Virtues (below), and Sun and Moon Personified (above), East Wall of North Bay, Santi Quattro Coronati, fresco, 1244-54. 

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